I have run a lot of games in my decades behind the screen. And more than anything games have a relationship of the quality of fun in direct proportion to another aspect of your game:
The quality of your villains.
A good collection of bad guys well get you half the way to GMing success. But this is difficult in a game where most opposition ends up on the short end of a dagger or crispy end of a fireball. So how do we go about villains that don’t suck? Great villains have a few things in common – plot longevity, workable scale and compelling motive.
A good villainous component has a presence that spans multiple sessions of a campaign. This does not mean a bad guy always gets away or is some how undefeatable, but finding a way to extend an oppositional presence is key to establishing a sense of victory or success when the encounter or campaign ends. Some techniques include:
* Forecast – Notes to minions, scraps of legends, failed summoning attempts, and abandoned laboratories are examples of this technique. The party finds the presence of the foe or evidence of them long before coming to blows.
* Faceless – Organizations of rogues, evil cults, doomsday prophecies, and enemy armies can all represent the faceless foe. Individuals that are encountered are part of a greater whole and while representing loss to the faceless opposition they are not always key enough to disrupt it. If you go this route I highly encourage smaller measures of success be considered (the princess is safe but the kingdom is still in danger) so that your players do not succumb to despair of facing the enormity of faceless bad guys.
* Contagious – Mind controlling parasites, sworn oaths of vengeance and heritage based legacies might cause the opposition to last in a game. Again be mindful of the sensation on impossibility with these villains.
* Eternal – Indestructible liches, evil artifacts, malevolent gods, bored immortals and internal corruption can all be examples of eternal opposition. The foes aren’t going away but that can be curbed, captured or contained. The absolute endgame may involve their lasting defeat but more likely it will just change or disperse them. Make sure there is a great reward or success with the setback of the eternal.
A villain has to have a scale to its nature where some sort of defeat is possible. There are a lot of ways to approach this:
* The Turn Radius – Slow reaction time is a very common weakness in a villains oppositional make up. This gives a vastly outnumbered force a chance to succeed. These campaigns tend to be long–be ready for that.
* The Critical Cog – A massively powerful villainous force sometimes has to rely on a specific condition or small detail to complete their master stroke. If the ritual is stopped, the kingdom is safe and the like. These can make for amazing stories, just make sure your heroes can sense some sort of victory as possible.
* The Black Arrow – Sometimes the mightiest of villains has most fatal of flaws. This staple of fantasy can be amazing and mythic or tired and cliche. Put the effort in here and it will pay off.
* The Body Count – Victory is when you have the biggest pile of corpses here. These games are violent and grim and often times lack a satisfying conclusion.
No one enters villainy casually. A believable motive is a believable villain. Most villains have at their core a virtuous perspective of their own acts. Possible motives include:
* Righting Wrongs – This is justice don’t you see. The villain here is just doing fair is fair with their own circumstances or so they think. Various degrees of self-deception and distortions can come into play here. Some great stories can occur when the villain actually WAS wronged. Dark knights, twisted families and racial enmity all come in here.
* Higher Truth – A villain possessed of what they believe to be a greater understanding of the universe can justify many things more “ignorant” people would never consider. This covers mad scientists, dark priests, and insane killers.
* Deep Fear – This villain is at heart afraid. Not necessarily a coward, they do what they do because they are afraid what happens when they don’t. Power for power’s sake is in this camp as well. Despots, xenophobes, and some zealots end up here.
* True Nihilist – Watch the world burn. Worship death. Really just a subset of the Higher Truth but worth mentioning because “Nothing” can be a truth.
Matching a good combination of longevity, scale and motive will give you great villains.
Next… What does this mean for Endamon.